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June 24th, 2015

More, Sir

BY Christian Ford

William Beutler - Soylent LabelA few weeks back one of the NYTimes’ most emailed articles was entitled “To Live on Schmilk Alone.”  (Interestingly, the online version, perhaps out of concern for the digerati, came labelled with the considerably less snarky “In Busy Silicon Valley, Protein Powder is in Demand.”)  Whatever you call it, however, it’s a story about how liquid food replacements are increasingly popular in coder culture.  Now, yes, this is the self-parody that Silicon Valley spontaneously fountains turned all the way up to eleven.  But beneath the low comedy, there are curious things to be mined from this trend.

“Schmilk,” it turns out, is a variant of “Schmoylent,” which is itself a variant of “Soylent,” which, in case you haven’t heard of it, is a “food replacement” developed by a coder named Rob Rhinehart.   Soylent’s creator encourages an online community devoted to further optimizing his optimized “fuel,” and so offshoots abound.

You’ll likely recognize the name Soylent as a blindingly obvious nod to the 70s dystopian epic starring Charleton Heston, Soylent Green.  In that story, the world is swamped in people and low in resources.  The Soylent Corporation is massive and powerful food concern which is at the end of their rope, because their popular plankton-based Soylent Green can no longer be harvested from the depleted seas.  So, like many agribusinesses we encounter daily, they pull a fast one.  In this case, it’s replacing plankton with an abundant resource —  “Soylent Green is people…!” as the last line of the movie tells us.

A name seems a small thing, but the clinging incoherence of this one stops me.  Is it a joke?   “Ha-ha, dude.  I’m drinking people!”  Well, maybe, but doesn’t a joke need an element of surprise to be funny?  An homage?  The movie, I’m sad to report, is execrable, even if it is Edward G Robinson’s last role.  Literal?  No, since Rhinehart’s soylent has no soy, no lentil and certainly no plankton.  So we’re left with marketing hook, but one that relies on a familiarity that works best when the recollection is the fuzziest.  It’s hard to know what to think.

There’s another possibility, however, which is that the name is intellectually incoherent, a word thought about, but not thought through.  It’s a notion that lines up with what we find in Rhinehart’s writing, where we find noble ambitions and great precision about quantifiable things mired in a much larger package of assumptions that are not listed on the nutrition label.

Rob Rhinehart’s initial post on the creation of Soylent and the future he sees for it makes for eye-opening reading.  My goal here is not to pick on Mr Rhinehart, because his intention is clearly that of liberation.  Still, the liberation you intend and the liberation you get rarely overlap.

I for one would not miss the stereotype of the housewife in the kitchen. Providing diverse, palatable, and nutritious meals for an entire family every day must be exhausting. What if taking a night off didn’t mean unhealthy pizza or expensive take out? How wasteful society has been with its women! The endless hours spent cooking and cleaning in the kitchen could be replaced with socializing, study, or creative endeavors. And why beg children to eat vegetables? Soylent has every vitamin and mineral the body needs, and it’s delicious.

Take a moment, please, to absorb the oblivious and yet breathtaking sexism on display.  Women’s horizons limited to gossiping, crafting or self-improvement?  Check.  The impossibility of a male providing a meal?  Check.   Women as property?  Yikes.

Now, to be clear, I feel confident that Rhinehart would be shocked by my criticism; after all, this is about liberation.  But it’s tough to break shackles if you don’t know where to find them.

What’s interesting is that Rhinehart — and his followers and the increasing number of competitors — have come to believe that food, itself, is a form of tyranny.  This, it strikes me, is a dubious (okay — pathological) attitude toward the stuff that keeps you from dying.

Before you peg me as a foodie unable to comprehend those who find scant joy in eating, let me demur.  Early medical calamity meant that the diet of my formative years was as bland as  possible and, far from pining for all the tastes that I couldn’t have, I was contented.  Even today, toast looms large in my personal pantheon of perfect foods.  So  it’s not an emotional attachment to foodness that stokes my ire, it’s the contempt inherent in the entire project.

That contempt lies in the belief — a belief so fundamental that it’s assumed to be unassailable fact —  that food can be reduced to nutrition, a precisely measured ratio of vitamins, minerals, fats and amino acids.  Wait, I hear you frowning, isn’t that exactly what we’ve all been told for a century?  Yes, it is.  Told over and over, albeit with each new piece not so much adding to the picture but invalidating old wisdom and replacing it — temporarily — with new.  Michael Pollan’s term for this belief system is “nutritionism” and if there’s a single thing that a trained engineer ought to be able to perceive about the history of nutrition since the discovery of vitamins and micronutrients, it’s that it has been a 120 year parade of breakthrough discoveries that turn out to be (a) incomplete and (b) wrong.

Entering our third century of it now, the US is plagued with lifestyle diseases.  We’re the fattest society in history, and yet also the most malnourished.  Five out of ten of our leading causes of death are diet related.  And — punchline — when you take someone from another food culture and begin to feed them what we eat?  They develop the exact same diseases.  A century of studying the Western World’s diet has yielded a single concrete lesson —  the diet of the Western World is lethal.

So consider what it might mean that the Rosetta Stone of Soylent, and Schmoylent, and Schmilk, etc, is the US Recommended Daily Allowances, the infrastructure of the one diet that reliably makes its people sick.

So if the Food Replacement guys aren’t lazy (patently not) and not dumb (at least in the IQ sense) what is going on here?  C’mon, guys, you’re engineers.  Shouldn’t you go engineer this?  You know, research data from an optimal system and then build on that?

This is what I don’t get.  The data for that optimal system does exist — it’s the highly researched diet of the residents of the Aegean island of Ikaria, AKA the Island Where People Forget to Die.  (Not a joke, you should check it out.)

But that’s not what Rhinehart and company did.  Instead, they’ve taken the nutrition information label on a cereal box and drilled down one level to discover what it’s based on.  It’s such a bizarre, halfassed error that it begs the question why?  Because you can’t order the components of the Ikarian diet from Amazon?

Okay, cynical.  But perhaps also true, because diet is food embedded in social context.  Now, I should pause to point out that this is the actual core of Rhinehart’s project, to remove food from social context.

The future of food is not the return to an agrarian society but the transcendence of it. In time Soylent will be synthesized directly from light, water, and air with designer microorganisms. Genetic engineering to enhance our microbiome, and eventually ourselves. I don’t know who was the first farmer, but I want to be the last. We will make food so cheap only the rich will cook.

But Ikaria doesn’t fit into that paradigm.  Their food, after all, consists primarily of what we would consider (1) weeds, (2) famine food, (3) poverty food (4) some nice side dishes.   The lesson of Ikaria is that diet isn’t food, (and it certainly isn’t “nutrients”) and above all, it isn’t decontextualizable.  On Ikaria, the social context is a culture which is profoundly about living — there’s just not much else they do there.

This is where the mystery of Soylent starts to reveal itself, because the Food Replacement Crew, inhabits a culture that is profoundly about working.  This is mooted as the reason for needing food replacements — avoid time eating when you could be coding — so a more coherent way of understanding Rhinehart’s “liberation nutritionism” would be to understand the social context he’s trying to escape.

Technology, we are told, is a rationalist and democratic project.  Free flowing information will lift the veil of ignorance and isolation, while the frictionless electronic marketplace will lift all boats, never mind that free flowing information tends to pool in sumps of like-minded thinking, while frictionless electronic commerce accelerates the process by which unaccountable corporate behemoths extirpate their smaller competition.

If there is real innovation in the Technology Industry, it lies in the remarkable democratic guise with which this new generation of robber barons has cloaked itself, and which their workers have fully embraced.  I suppose I wouldn’t mind so much if they were cranking out something of enduring value but — pop quiz — which of these two things valued north of $1 billion in today’s money has real value:  Tinder?  Or the Golden Gate Bridge?

And that’s the thing, because the Technology Industry is not the fusion-fueled future of endless energy and effortless living, but a machine fueled by endless effort.  With precious few exceptions, the only thing the Industry has to sell is newness itself, which has a vexingly brief shelf life.   To keep making sales, you need a massive and highly motivated workforce who not only don’t mind a culture that demands they value their work above all else, but which are willfully deaf and blind to anything which doesn’t fit that world view.  If you want proof, take stroll through any tech hub metropolis and count the number of tech workers wearing t-shirts with the name of their employers, t-shirts which, if you look at them with the magic sunglasses, actually read “Serf Pride.”

That, I think, is the true point of origin for the Soylent/Schmoylent/Schmilk trend.  Dimly, somewhere deep in the subconsciouses of all those stealing time away from coding to earnestly contribute to the soylent/schmoylent/schmilk forums, there’s an awareness of the words printed on that t-shirt and a simmering desire for liberation.  Trapped within a culture that denies the value of any human activity which doesn’t create value for those at the top of the pyramid, Rhinehart and company have turned to experimenting on their own bodies because this is something that is truly theirs.  In tailoring their “fuel,” they are expressing their personalities even as they conceive themselves as machines, using their innate creativity, acting as the unique individuals that they are.  But they are doing it within a hobbled and distorted social context that, to put it mildly, does not benefit them.  In other words, food-as-fuel is food for slaves, enthusiastically created by the slaves themselves in a joyous embrace of a hateful fate.

Which I guess means, in the end, that Soylent/Schmoylent/Schmilk really is people.


Nutrition Facts by William Beutler
Soylent Oceanographic Report by Richard Fleischer
Oliver Twist by F Barnard via Biblioteca de la Facultad de Derecho y Ciencias del Trabajo Universidad de Sevilla
“They Live” homage by Alessandro Liguori
Liquid “They Live” homage by Alessandro Liguori